Caution! Railway safety since 1913

Before 1913

Railway work was incredibly dangerous in the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly if you were a shunter or platelayer. For example, in 1900 alone over 16,000 workers were injured or killed. So what was done to protect employees?

In the 19th century the government and the public were mainly concerned with passenger safety. The state only slowly became interested in worker safety, with the rise of the trades unions.

The railway companies saw it as the workers' responsibility to look after themselves. They did the bare minimum, providing stern warnings through signs, rule books and circulars.



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1. Rule 24 from the North British Railway rule book, 1898

Rule books were central to the companies' approach to safety, but they actually said little about the workers. Instead, the focus was on passenger safety and efficient operation.

The exception was rule 24:

Reckless exposure of himself or others to danger ... will be treated as an offence to the Company's Regulations, and punished accordingly.


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2. Rules and Regulations, Great Northern Railway, 1900

Like the rule book, paper notices – displayed in mess rooms and engine sheds – gave formal warnings about safety issues. They tended to be dull and wordy.

... any accident occasioned by such conduct, the party in default to pay the sufferer's wages, or the doctor's bill.


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3. Cast iron sign, North Eastern Railway, c.1922

Precise dangers were sometimes indicated by cast-iron signs. 

Rather than removing the danger, the companies put up signs and made the workers responsible for safety.



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4. North Eastern Railway circular, 1867

From time to time companies also issued circulars, warning of particular dangers. 

In this early example, enginemen were told about safety measures to take when at work – but they related to the safety of the engine and the passengers, not the workers.



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5. North London Railway ambulance team, c.1900

With so many injuries to deal with, it is little wonder that most railway companies encouraged staff to learn first aid. 

This ambulance team stand proudly behind the shield they had won in a first aid competition.



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6. Crewe railway works hospital, 1913

Injured workers might be taken to a railway hospital for treatment. This image shows a ward at Crewe works hospital on the London & North Western Railway.



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7. General arrangement and detail drawing of an artificial leg, London & North Western Railway, 1885

For workers who lost a leg or arm, the larger railway companies might, at their discretion, provide an artificial limb. 

This drawing gave dimensions for prosthetic legs manufactured at Crewe. Read more about this item in our blog post.


Railway safety after 1913 »

Background: BR Warflat